These are strange times we’re living in. Very little can be predicted about the future, even in the short term —except perhaps that you want to write more, and make more films. That’s good, because that work matters. People don’t take the time to understand each other, and hate is rising.
It’s completely legitimate, now, that you’d want to make more films, better films, films that have an impact. Many such films have come before us, and it’s time to look at them for inspiration.
Triumph of the Will (1935)
All art is propaganda. “Propaganda for the self”, as Jill Soloway put it in her instant-classic address on the topic of the female gaze at TIFF. Triumph of the Will is propaganda elevated to the level of art, a classic of propaganda films alongside Battleship Potemkin.
Its spectacular filmmaking earned its director, Leni Riefenstah, instant success and political recognition. The masses didn’t necessarily flow into the Nazi party, but it had a massive impact in swaying people and public opinion from despising the Nazis to admiring them.
Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)
A classic of the French New Wave, this film is equally influenced by the political context in which it’s made as it later influenced society. While the story we follow, that of Cleo during the two hours when she’s waiting to hear whether she has cancer or not, is extremely personal, the atmosphere is influenced by the Algerian war for independence (which was a major concern in France in the 50’s and 60’s).
It’s also a Left Bank film, with a deliberately female point of view, and with a female director, Agnès Varda, who is still working today. The escape from the male gaze, the groundbreaking filmmaking and the influence of existentialism were clues of the impending student riots of May 68 and the rise of feminism in French society in the 60’s and 70’s.
In Czechoslovakia at a time of heightened censorship, the Czech New Wave still managed to break the rules and convey its profound contempt for the regime in approved films. This film was a stepping stone, both in its dissent of communism as well as in its feminist stand.
It’s anarchic both in theme and technique, and was one of the most influential films in the film movement until, two years later, the Prague Spring opened up comments and criticism about the regime.
Cathy Come Home (1966)
Technically it’s a TV film, but it took its place as a classic, a stepping stone in social realism, and still one of the most harrowing films in Ken Loach’s filmography, and one that was discussed at length during the conversation after he received the first Auteur Award at the 24th Raindance Festival.
The gritty, documentary style that was going to become a hallmark of Ken Loach’s style completely broke the mould of what a BBC teleplay was supposed to be, and also showed in a very realistic way how homelessness was a fact in British society, to such moving effect that it spurred conversations all the way to Parliament. Ken Loach is back at it with his latest, I, Daniel Blake.
Easy Rider (1969)
The 60’s saw a lot of things bubbling up to the surface in the United States, socially and morally. Easy Rider is one of the films that, in the late 60’s, broke the mould and spoke not only of what was happening, but also to and for the people who were making it happen.
If The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde spoke of the sexual revolution, Easy Rider was such a huge countercultural landmark that it made it way into the mainstream and altered it.
Annie Hall (1977)
The film surprised many people for many reasons. Not only was this film a break in Woody Allen’s filmography from “the early funny ones” in tone, it also featured a female character that felt real, and contemporary in ways that few characters did back then. It even managed to beat Star Wars to the Best Picture Oscar.
Woody Allen has often stated that the eponymous character was influenced by Diane Keaton and their relationship. It certainly gave cinema one of its classic films, with memorable one-liners, a touching story and, most of all, a complex character who’s not looked down on.
The China Syndrome (1979)
Sometimes, a film gets topical in spite of all the best efforts from an overzealous marketing team. The China Syndrome is a very effective thriller about a television reporter and her cameraman who discover safety coverups in a nuclear plant. Two weeks after the film was released, a partial nuclear meltdown occurred in the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania.
The film voiced concerns that many green activists had in the 70’s to chilling effect, yet the extreme relevance brought the film to a whole other level. Not only is the film political, it didn’t forget to tell a gripping story, and that’s perhaps what’s most memorable.
Man of Iron (1981)
In 1981, the Polish government was starting to bend on the Solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa and briefly let the workers unionise independently from the state. At that time, censorship wasn’t as strong, which enabled legendary director Andrzej Wajda to make this scolding commentary of the regime.
The parallels between the main character and Walesa are clear, and the international praise showered on the film (winning the Palme d’Or, a nomination at the Best Foreign Film Oscar) worldwide, brought more attention to what was happening in the communist block. That was one crack in the block. One decade later, the Berlin Wall fell.
Hate speech kills. Giving people a voice and representation can change that. Over ten years after the HIV/AIDS started in the United States, this courtroom drama put a famous name and a famous face on the issue. As a man living with AIDS who gets fired because of his condition, Tom Hanks gave a stunning performance with a drastic weight loss. Added realism comes from the fact that several AIDS patients appeared as extras for hospital scenes. It’s a gripping tale not just about AIDS, but also about the ramifications of pervasive latent homophobia in society, at work and in family.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Few documentaries have become classic films, or have gained such instant worldwide recognition as An Inconvenient Truth. Al Gore has been bringing his political aura to the cause of fighting global warming since he left the US Vice President’s office in 2001, and started giving presentations about the issue.
The film based on those presentations brought attention to the ever-pressing problem of fighting climate change to worldwide success. It became not only a box office draw, but also a key educational resource on the matter.
Do you want to make the next great film that will push social change forward? What topics are you going to tackle?